From the Archives: The Geopolitics of People Power: The Pursuit of the Nation-State in East Central Europe

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1992.

Raymond Pearson
November 16, 2018

The cult of the sovereign nation-state has been the central by the seminal ideas of the French Revolution, early nationalists were fired by the concept of the "nation" as the only natural and therefore sole morally legitimate, community. The exigencies of self-interest ensured that unanimity was never reached on the crucial question of defining "natural," though nationalists were to include such classic identifiers as religion, race, language, culture and history in their attempts to come up with a mutually satisfactory formula. Consensus was much closer in perceiving nationalism as "primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent." By the middle of the nineteenth century, the prime objective of nationalist self-determination was to achieve the dream of the nation-state, Max Weber called "the nation's secular organization of power," the ideal political construct in which nation and state were geopolitically identical. 

Within the East European context, the scene was set for a twentieth century in which the nation-state was pursued with a passion all the more consuming because of its successive encouragement and then frustration through external intervention. In defiance of a demographic legacy that rendered the principle of nation-statehood demonstrably unrealizable and an accelerating trend to international interdependence that rendered the exercise of exclusive sovereignty increasingly anachronistic, the enduring appeal of the nation-state lost none of its meretricious glamor. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, the collapse of the ostensible supranational communist authority has prompted an unconscionable — and probably internecine — struggle for nation statehood that will obsess greater Eastern Europe for the foreseeable future. 

The Legacy of World War

To nationalists in East Central Europe, the first half of the twentieth century set the stage for a tragic scenario of national revolution and imperial counterrevolution. Following what passed for victories for national emancipation in Central Europe and the Balkans during the later nineteenth century, the Versailles Europe precipitated by the First World War emphatically endorsed the dual nationalist principles of self-determination and the nation-state. All existing jurisdictions with claims to nation-statehood were confirmed (e.g., Greece and Romania), and new geopolitical entities with claims to self-determination were licensed (e.g., Poland and the Baltic states). Out of the war-fragmented dynastic empires of the Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Hohenzollerns emerged a clutch of successor states dedicated to the twin aims of self-determination and constitutional democracy. The potent combination of indigenous self-emancipation and international endorsement effected a public triumph for the principle of the nation-state in East Central Europe. 

While conceding the emotional and populist appeal of such a nationalist scenario, most Western commentators have preferred to perceive twentieth-century East European development as that of spasmodic evolution toward the nation-state. By this interpretation, Versailles Europe embodied not the unqualified triumph of the principle of the nation-state but a convulsive geopolitical lurch from a select number of large empires to a large number of select empires. Although virtually all the successor states claimed nation-statehood, they were in reality mini-empires (with Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and especially Yugoslavia the most ethnically heterogeneous). Those few new jurisdictions that approximated nation-states did so out of necessity rather than choice, usually as the result of dictates imposed on the losers in the First World War. In practice, the principle of nation-statehood was held in indulgent abeyance for those nations allied to the victors, such as the Romanians, Poles, Serbs and Czechs, but was imposed punitively on those nations foolish enough to have al lied with the vanquished, such as the Hungarians and Bulgarians.

With national minorities representing one-quarter of the total population of East Central Europe, the Versailles-endorsed shift in the direction of the nation-state had the unfortunate effect of producing hybrid jurisdictions, neither dynastic empires accustomed to coping with heterogeneous populations nor nation states that could assume homogeneous nationhood. The result was the worst of all possible geopolitical worlds: Newly concocted states living the lie of nation-statehood languished in a condition of permanent conflict both with their antagonized mi norities and their territorially dissatisfied neighbors. This prompted a debilitating instability throughout interwar East Central Europe, which was easily exploited by the ambitious revisionist powers of Germany and the Soviet Union. 

In tragic contrast, the Yalta Europe bequeathed by the Second World War canceled and reversed the nationalist gains of Versailles Europe. Despite East European hopes that the Second World War was fought to restore an overturned Versailles Europe, the independence of the interwar nation-states was lost, first to the Nazi "New Order" and then to the Stalinist Soviet bloc. With the transformation of the Red Army occupation zone into the expanded "Soviet empire" in East Central Europe over the 1940s, the formerly independent nation-states were forcibly converted into colonies of an ideologically and nationally alien empire. With the loss of nation-statehood, the hallowed principles of moral sovereignty and self-determination were relegated to what Benedict Anderson has termed the "imagined world" of nationalist wishful thinking. As the prime political victims of the Second World War, the gloomy East Central European nations could be forgiven for believing that nothing short of a third world war could possibly restore their fortunes as independent nation states. 

While Yalta Europe indisputably canceled the sovereign status of all East European states except Yugoslavia and Albania, which were fortuitously spared both military liberation and political subordination by the Red Army, its effect upon nation-statehood paradoxically reinforced the twentieth-century trend. The second World War and its aftermath simplified the demographic settlement of East Central Europe to a significant degree by the relatively heavy damage inflicted upon minority nationalities: Some minority ethnic groups had been targeted for physical liquidation by the Nazi regime (e.g., the Jews and Gypsies); other minorities suffered mass deportation into Asian exile by the Soviet authorities (e.g., the Caucasian peoples accused of collaboration with German occupation forces); and many hitherto far-flung minorities concentrated their settlements in the hope that larger numbers might afford greater protection (e.g., Hungarians in Slovakia and Transylvania). German minorities fearing retribution at the hands of the Red Army fled west from East Central Europe during 1944 and 1945, and many of those who risked staying found themselves expelled soon afterwards (notably from Czechoslovakia and what became western Poland). That the losers of the traumatic experience of the Second World War were generally minority nationalities may be judged from the fact that, in numerical terms, the total proportion of minorities fell by half, from about one-quarter of the population of Versailles Europe to one-eighth of Yalta Europe.

Notwithstanding frequently appalling wartime losses (particularly for the Russians, Poles and Serbs), nations with an existing, generally recognized claim to statehood emerged winners. Although all the independent eastern states of Versailles Europe (bar Yugoslavia and Albania) were deliberately demoted to what amounted to colonial status in Yalta Europe, not one lost its recognized territorial jurisdiction, whether as a "people's democracy" in the newly reduced East Central Europe (e.g., Hungary) or as a "union republic" within the expanded Soviet Union (e.g., Lithuania). Although that jurisdiction was no longer sovereign in practice, the majority of the eastern states of Yalta Europe had moved closer to nation-statehood than ever before, because the Second World War had struck hardest at previously irksome minorities. Even those states most encumbered with nationalities, such as Yugoslavia and Romania, shifted marginally across the broad demographic spectrum from unmanageable heterogeneity toward tidy homogeneity. Others benefited perversely both from demographic war damage and enforced frontier change. Poland, for example, increased from only 69 percent Polish in interwar Versailles Europe to more than 97 percent Polish in postwar Yalta Europe, being effectively transformed from a mini-empire into something closely resembling a nation-state. As with the First World War, the Second World War nudged East Central Europe further along the long road towards nation-statehood, a geopolitical advance paid for by involuntary incorporation into the expanded Soviet bloc. 

The Drift Towards Denationalization

The 40 years after the end of the Second World War proved to be lean ones for the pursuit of the sovereign nation-state in Central Europe. At the most practical level, the power available to Soviet authority seemed sufficient to contain the much-vaunted forces of nationalism in its East European dominions. Although flare-ups with significant nationalist input disturbed the Soviet empire, notably in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, military intervention accompanied by political crackdown served to "normalize" the essentially colonial status of the East European states. With each passing decade of imperial subordination, nationalist optimism waned further, to be replaced by a sullen but generally ineffectual resentment. The brute force available to Soviet authority seemed to be promoting what has been called a "taming of nationalism." 

Indeed, ambitious strategies designed for the assimilation of individual nationalities were entertained (though whether motivated by confidence in future achievement or frustration at past failure has never been convincingly established). From the very start, the Bolshevik government assumed (or affected to believe) that redundant nationalism would cede to modern socialism: National consciousness would naturally wither away on exposure to the progressive socialist experience. Since the 1930s, the creation of homo sovieticus, the new Soviet man standing above traditional religious, cultural and national allegiances, had been promoted by ebullient Stalinism. In his last years, Joseph Stalin sponsored the relatively modest concept of the Soviet "family of nations" to sweeten the pill of involuntary incorporation into his expanded, and therefore even more multinational, empire. By the mid-1950s, Nikita Khrushchev was officially backing a medium-term policy of the rapprochement (sblizhenie) of nations within the Soviet "family" as the prelude to an ambitious long-term policy of "fusion" (sliianie) of national identities. Although national consciousness obstinately persisted in the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev was still promoting the "Soviet nation" (a concept not too dissimilar from the American "nation of nations") as an attractive alternative to, and superior replacement for, traditional national identity and allegiance as late as the mid-1970s. 

Soviet plans and practices should be set against a Western background in which nationalism was being discredited and belittled. Over the decade following the Second World War, nationalism became the popular scapegoat for the outbreak of both world wars, condemned as a malign contagion against which all states were put on red alert. While not so sanguine as to believe that nationalism had become an anachronism overnight, the post war establishment felt justified in hoping that the "domestication" of nationalism was a feasible objective: Though nationalism might never be cured, it could be contained by appropriate treatment. Stratagems by which nationalism might be accommodated were highlighted — for example, federalism as a constructive compromise between economies of scale and local amour propre; consociationalism as a sophisticated new blueprint for multinational government; and multiculturalism as the philosophy of benign state intercession in a pluralistic community. With the rapid development of the European Community, Western Europe seemed to be underwriting a drift away from the conventional nation-state, increasingly stressed by both economics-driven internationalization and culture-driven regionalization, toward what might be called denationalization, the influence of which was presumed to extend to Soviet-dominated Europe. 

A final dimension of denationalization lay in the assumption of much of the West European intellectual establishment that nationalism was ripe for "supersession." For example, in a lecture delivered as recently as 1985, Eric Hobsbawm argued that nationalism was "no longer a major vector of historical development... [but] most a complicating factor or a catalyst for other developments...retreating before, resisting, adapting to, being absorbed or dislocated by, the new supernational restructuring of the globe." Whether invented by disaffected nineteenth-century intellectuals concocting their own alternative political constituency or organically precipitated by communities passing through a critical phase of societal modernization, by this interpretation, nationalism is a momentarily impressive but inevitably ephemeral phenomenon. If it’s more pessimistic opponents perceived nationalism as a kind of political malaria, always likely to flare up once contracted but treatable through dedicated therapy, its more optimistic critics viewed nationalism as political acne, a minor affliction of a healthy adolescent society, briefly disfiguring but happily transitory. A fragile consensus emerged, which envisaged at least the domestication and management of nationalism and at best its total discrediting and supersession in the increasingly cosmopolitan Europe of the late twentieth century.

The Power of the Powerless

The era of perestroïka, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev 1985, has served to contradict the conventional wisdom of Yalta Europe and, like the First and Second World Wars, once advance the cause of the nation-state both in traditional Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Although the concatenation of economic, political, social and cultural factors in the groundswell of what has been dubbed "people power" renders easy generalization impossible, three factors were outstanding in fueling the revival of the nationalist phenomenon. The principal long-term cause was the resilience of the popular sense of nationhood. It may well be that however dubious the credentials and shady the origins of national consciousness, once a sense of nationhood is established, it proves almost impossible to expunge: The "imagined community" — in Benedict Anderson's famous phrase — quickly becomes an ineradicable "state of mind." As the experience of Poland over the nineteenth century demonstrated, a self-confident nation could not only survive the deprivation of its statehood but be nourished by the universal sense of national outrage generated by its brutal treatment at foreign hands. Poland's past self-perception as the martyred "Christ of nations" was revived by its fifth partition between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in late 1939 and then its ignominious displacement westward to suit Stalinist power politics in 1945. 

But Poland was only the most high-profile example of a phenomenon typical to East Central Europe. Whatever the shortcomings of the independent states over the interwar period (and they were numerous), the ruthless termination of their sovereignty and forcible incorporation into the alien Soviet empire elicited an almost unanimous sense of national grievance, which showed no signs of moderating over their 40 years of subjugation. Similarly, the heady experience of independence enjoyed by Ukraine, Belorussia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaidzhan during the Russian civil war, which was succeeded by relatively benign Soviet treatment during the 1920s, ensured that however brief the taste of national emancipation, its memory stayed indelible in the public consciousness. However selective or self-serving the national memory of past independence, the accomplished historical fact of national sovereignty provided unique solace in times of repression and inspiration in times of new opportunity. 

The cardinal medium-term precipitant of rejuvenated nationalist activity was the environmental threat. The most dramatic, indeed near-apocalyptic, episode was the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, which alerted not just the Soviet Union but the wider world to the risks and repercussions of nuclear accident. Chernobyl also raised global conscious ness about the unacceptable, even suicidal, damage inflicted by irresponsible human agencies upon a fragile environment. But Chernobyl proved to be only the first in a series of ecological disasters: The poisoning of the Aral Sea, known as the "silent Chernobyl," and the appalling realization of a "slow Chernobyl" in the broad swathe of ongoing ecodisasters perpetrated by dinosaur industries running east to west, from Baikal to Bitterfeld, have been etched into the broader European awareness. 

The social and political fallout emanating from such environ mental catastrophes has been prodigious and pervasive. The immediate physical threat to the community has politicized a lower stratum of population that had in the past been outside conventional politics. In contrast to traditional, rarefied communist high politics, the environmental threat has introduced a new brand of low politics directly geared to the lifestyles of concerned ordinary citizens, lending a genuine people-power dimension to com plaints against official stewardship of the economy, society and environment. Nationalism has awoken from hibernation to pick up on this universal disquiet, articulating and exploiting popular resentment of local treatment at the hands of remote and uncaring authority. The effect has typically been a blending of traditional nationalist and new environmentalist consciousness to produce a greening of nationalism throughout East Central Europe. 

The third factor promoting an upsurge of nationalist activity was the transformation of the mass media. The 1980s certainly featured a run of sensational environmental disasters unprecedented in earlier decades, but the fresher political climate pervading East Central Europe ensured that the populace was much more likely to learn about such threats to the environment. Ecological disasters could no longer be excluded from the public domain. A revolution in information technology had taken place: The number of privately owned televisions and shortwave radios had increased dramatically; the introduction of satellite broad casting mocked the barbed wire of closed borders; continent wide telephoning and faxing facilities made effective supervision impractical; and the ready availability of typewriters, word processors and copying machines made unofficial dissemination of information unstoppable. The Iron Curtain, the most symbolic artifact of the obsolete Yalta Europe, developed metal fatigue to the extent that it became an ineffectual, almost translucent barrier between East and West. With the breakthrough in the news media, the nations and nationalities of greater East Central Europe could no longer be kept ignorant of either the richer and freer societies to the west or of the manifest deficiencies in the running of their own captive societies. The cumulative result was the surge of people power that has flowed through East Central Europe since the annus mirabilisof 1989.

The Impotence of the Powerful

For every protagonist of the "overthrow school" of commentators on the events of 1989, there is a champion of the “collapse school,” so it would be imprudent as well as ahistorical to ignore the critical role of resident authority in the demise of the Soviet bloc. The decolonization of the "Last Empire" demonstrated the ultimate incapacity of imperial authority to confront the challenges of the late twentieth century. Nowhere was this more glaring than in communist frustration over the obstinately "un withering national question." Within the Soviet Union, neither conciliation nor coercion proved successful. The adoption of an ostensibly federal constitution (including the right of secession for the principal nations of the Soviet Union) and a compromise policy of "national in form, socialist in content" over the 1920s did not mollify nations whose independent existence had just been guillotined by Soviet invasion. Stalinist onslaughts on "national chauvinism" during the 1930s claimed still-untold casualties among nationalist elites but conspicuously failed to eradicate national consciousness. Despite the ruthless exercise of near totalitarian power, national identity proved to be Teflon-coated against the most frenzied Soviet onslaughts. As socialism rather than nationalism withered away, only naked Soviet power prevented the implementation of a policy of "national in form, nationalist in content" within the Soviet bloc.

The long-term failure of Soviet authority to eradicate nationalist sentiment was compounded over the late 1980s by loss of control over the mass media and the news. The logic of glasnost', fostered in earnest by Gorbachev by 1987, was that the only way to address problems fundamental to socialist society was to con front them in open, public debate rather than the traditional, confidential, even conspiratorial caucus. Ostensibly at least, such concessions as the un jamming of Western radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union in August 1988 represented a conscious and deliberate policy undertaken by state authority in a spirit of the responsible prosecution of necessary reform. 

More cynical commentators have argued that Gorbachev was only bowing to the inevitable: The collective impact of the revolution in media technology in the 1980s made the traditional Soviet insistence on its monopoly of news through the exercise of censorship and control almost quaintly anachronistic. A reformist leader accordingly had no option but to license the unavoidable by sanctioning glasnost'. If glasnost'was indeed a tacit recognition of the victory of the information revolution coupled with an attempt to control the phenomenon through official license, there seems little doubt that this risky stratagem failed. It can be no coincidence that, from the Prague Spring of 1968 onwards, the personnel of the mass media have been in the forefront of nationalist reform movements. It must also be symptomatic that television and radio stations from Bucharest in 1989 to Vilnius in 1991 became the typical flashpoints in confrontation between opposition and authority. At the very least, glasnost'failed to channel the media revolution to the advantage of the existing establishments. Typically, glasnost'backfired disastrously upon communist authority throughout the Soviet bloc. 

A final dimension to the impotence of the powerful became the universal belief in the moral bankruptcy of supranational state authority. Rather than facilitating constructive perestroïkaglasnost' completed the disillusionment with established communist governments. Revelations of official incompetence, highlighted by Chernobyl, damaged the credibility of authority. Revelations of official corruption — from the almost surrealistic luxury of ConducatorCeausescu to the merely well-upholstered lifestyle of the average CPSU member — undermined the respect ability of authority. Revelations of official criminality — focusing on the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the Second World War, which targeted such nationalities as the Poles, Jews and Ukrainians — destroyed the tattered legitimacy of supranational authority for all non-Russian nationalities. As ever with nationalism, history has proven to be political dynamite: The pre-1985 historical record of incompetence, corruption and criminality exposed byglasnost' exploded what remained of both the moral legitimacy and political credibility of communist regimes throughout the Soviet bloc. With supranational authority plunged into deepest disgrace, the purveyors of nationalism opportunistically seized the moral and political high ground. In autumn 1989, the nerve of authority confronted by public opposition first cracked and then collapsed. Thrown on the moral defensive, shamed communist establishments lost the will to govern and succumbed to defeatist resignation in a geopolitical domino effect, which has now reached eastward to the Kremlin itself. 

Beneficiaries of Renationalization

Native nationalism was, and remains, the force most capable of filling the power vacuum left by the precipitate collapse of communist authority across greater Eastern Europe. It was predictable that the new nationalist people power, variously described as "ethno-populism" and "ethnic fundament would be directed toward the traditional ideal of the nation state, rumors of whose death had been much exaggerated. Two world wars and the fall of the Soviet empire have brought East Central Europe progressively closer to the nationalist objective of the nation-state, opening a fateful window of opportunity for minority nationalities and tantalizing majority nations into believing that the complete realization of their time-hallowed ideal is finally within their grasp.

All national groups without exception have already affected by this new renationalization, but to different degrees and in varying forms depending upon population size, settlement distribution, geopolitical position and recent political development. Nations enjoying the advantages of large, preferably compact numbers, a westerly location and a historically respectable homeland are readily admissible players in the international arena. As discussed above, the effect of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath was to confirm the existence, though not necessarily the geopolitical size and location, of the first wave of so-called nation-states of Versailles Europe and to shift them further along the road to real nation-statehood. In the crucial sense that no nation-state acknowledged by the Versailles settlement has subsequently lost its right to national jurisdiction, all the nations recognized at the end of the First World War have proved to be long-term winners. The last five years ofperestroïkahave, in effect, served as a surrogate third world war, once again favoring resident nation-states by restoring political sovereignty and independence.

Though hypersensitive to encroachments upon their refurbished sovereignty, these newly satisfied nations have quickly come to regard themselves as the restored establishment in traditional Eastern Europe, unlikely to make trouble unless intolerably penalized in the past. The classic aggrieved nation is, of course, Hungary: Territorially reduced by two-thirds by the Treaty of Trianon, a settlement partially revised under the Nazi regime but reconfirmed in Yalta Europe, Hungary represents itself as merely the Hungarian heartland, with an unacceptable proportion of the Hungarian nation marooned within the jurisdictions of Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the beneficiary states of Versailles. The leading revisionist state within traditional Eastern Europe, Hungary is naturally tempted to undermine the territorial integrity of its neighbors by claiming sovereignty over, and encouraging the aspirations of, its expatriate minorities in Transylvania, Slovakia and Voivodina, in the ultimate hope of restoring a Greater Hungary. In light of the territorial dissolution of northern Yugoslavia over 1991, Premier Jozsef Antall has taken to echoing the overtly irredentist claims of the Hungarian Democratic Forum. Hungary has been involuntarily cast by twentieth century history as the troublemaker at the heart of East Central Europe, set to benefit from the frontier revision that might ensue from the destabilization of neighbors that are still more mini empire than nation-state. 

The dream of achieving nation-statehood has possessed those second-tier candidate nations that lost out on promotion to statehood in Versailles Europe and were therefore resigned to further demotion in Yalta Europe. To such aspiring, unsatisfied nations, the collapse of the supranational Yugoslav and Soviet territorial concoctions represents another, very possibly unrepeatable, opportunity to stake their claims to nation-statehood. With everything to gain and little to lose, frustrated nations within collapsing or stressed multinational states — such as the Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, Croats and Slovenes in Yugoslavia and Ukrainians and Georgians in the Soviet Union—are proving most single-minded and uncompromising in pursuing the objective of the nation state. 

Of the second-wave nations currently in hot pursuit of the nation-state, perhaps only Slovenia is sufficiently compact territorially, ethnically homogeneous and free of significant expatriate minorities to warrant the label "nation-state." To the east, Armenia is the most ethnically homogeneous of all the former union republics of the USSR, with 93.3 percent of the population being Armenian; however, the outposted enclave of Nagorno Karabakh within Azerbaidzhan highlights the inconvenient fact that 33.3 percent of all Armenians reside outside Armenia. Moreover, there seems little doubt that while the great majority of the newly independent former republics of the defunct Soviet Union will constitute national heartlands, they will also compromise multiethnic mini-empires. Georgia, for example, may include 95.1 per cent of all Georgians, a situation that fosters an overpowering national solidarity, but its total population is only 70.1 percent Georgian. Similarly, Moldova contains 83.4 percent of Moldovans, but its total population is only 64.5 percent Moldovan; and Latvia houses 95.1 percent of Latvians yet has a population that is merely 52 percent Latvian. In other words, the second-wave nations of the Russian borderlands in the 1990s will approximate the first-wave nations of traditional Eastern Europe in the 1920s — i.e., mini-empires ambitious to convert the state propaganda of nation-statehood into political and social reality at the expense of their apprehensive minorities. 

A third and rather select league of potential beneficiaries of renationalization is the formerly imperial nations of Serbia and Russia. For at least a decade prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, it was evident that the "master nation" of each supranational jurisdiction was having profound doubts about its traditional imperial role. Nationalists may triumphantly assert the expulsion of empire, but imperialists are often motivated by expedient withdrawal. Colonies have a tendency to start as assets and end up as liabilities, which the overreaching imperial power is increasingly tempted to discard. Thus, while accepting that imperial disengagement is invariably more complex and protracted than at first appears, the breathtaking speed with which the Last Empire dissolved in East Central Europe during 1989 was testimony as much to the Soviet desire for decolonization, prompted by a "Russia first" mentality, as to the irresistible force of nationalist people power. By the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev was confronting the issue of imperial cost accounting fudged for a decade by Leonid Brezhnev: He was compelled to cut imperial losses by shedding colonies that had become more trouble than they were worth. The unilateral declaration of Russia's sovereignty made by Boris Yeltsin in June 1990 demonstrated that Russia was no exception to the now universal drive for nation-statehood. Drained and alienated by the responsibilities of a supranational empire, the dominant nations of Serbia and Russia seem set on becoming beneficiaries of renationalization by converting their ambitions to the realization of a Greater Serbia and Greater Russia. 

Causualties of Renationalization

National groupings of smaller dimensions are likely to suffer in the accelerating process of renationalization, as regimes are tempted to employ from the armory of integral nationalism such weapons as partition, displacement, expulsion, ethnocide and even genocide. Mere "nationalities," minor ethnic communities without the necessary political clout ever to secure nation-statehood, are expected to reconcile themselves, with good the status of minorities within host states of a different national identity. The same nation-statehood that has been the dream of the larger nations may well prove a nightmare for the multiplicity of small nationalities. Alarmed at the prospect of being on the receiving end of rigorous nationalizing policies of established first-nationalities wave or, especially, ebullient second-wave nations, minor nationalities have not necessarily welcomed the passing of the communist regimes. Groups such as the Gagauz within Moldova and within and the Abkhazians within Georgia have claimed moral sovereignty by declaring independence from their new host which in turn has provoked Moldovan and Georgian nationalism and cast the nationalities as traitors to the newly declared nation states. With their small size undermining their viability and maximizing their vulnerability, the submerged nationalities cannot realistically anticipate a "third wave" generated by another geopolitical pulse to waft them to nation-statehood. On the they can expect to be permitted no role other than that of pawns in the nation-state game and are likely to become major casualties in the new integral renationalization. 

Even more targeted for nationalist victimization are the “landless" ethnic groups. Implicit in the concept of the nation-state is the heartless but generally insurmountable distinction landed and landless peoples. The nation-state is based upon the principle of territoriality, the "legitimate" possession of national territory. Such national territory may be claimed historically- ideally through the pedigree of autochthonous inhabitants maintaining uninterrupted residence from the mists of prehistory up to the present day — or demographically — ideally through the unanimous democratic mandate of an ethnically homogenous population. To qualify under both criteria is to present a virtually unassailable claim to sovereignty over territory. To falter under either criterion is to invite counterclaims by neighboring rival nations. To fail to convince under both criteria is effectively to consign a people to the doomed landless category of claimant. Such unsettled peoples, usually diaspora ethnic groups, are commonly disqualified even as nationalities and thus are necessarily excluded from the national landscape and are likely to become the principal victims of the assimilationist ambitions of integral renationalization. 

But the most dangerous category to be penalized by renationalization is what may be called formerly imperial minorities. It is commonplace to remark that the demographic pattern of settlement in greater Eastern Europe is still so ethnically diffuse that the nationalist objective of including all of a nation's own nationals, while simultaneously excluding all nationals of other states, cannot be achieved by even the most ingenious political cartography. Moreover, the larger and more historically dominant the nation, the greater is the likelihood of a widely dispersed national settlement and therefore the greater the difficulty of applying the concept of the territorial nation-state. The precedent of the 1920s is not promising for the 1990s. Formerly dominant minorities in enclaves within first-wave states (such as Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Turks in Bulgaria and Hungarians in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) could not reconcile themselves to their reduced circumstances in their new host states and looked to their home states for protection. Their new masters victimized them uninhibitedly, both in a spirit of settling old scores and as alleged fifth columns of their revanchist home states. 

The problem is now most acute with such formerly dominant minorities as the Serbs and Russians. In both cases, the dominant nation within a multinational state jurisdiction was spread demographically to serve the supposedly supranational socialist state: A substantial proportion of Serbs came to reside outside Serbia but still within Yugoslavia, and a substantial proportion of Russians came to reside outside the Russian republic but still within the Soviet Union. With the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, many Serbs and Russians have found themselves stranded and exposed outside their national heartland. The imperial demographic legacy thereby poses almost insuperable obstacles to the geopolitical replacement of empire by nation-state. 

Two prima facie solutions to the Procrustean predicament of attempting to reconcile the nation-state and population settlement are commonly entertained. The more surgical recourse is to insist that if national frontiers cannot be contrived to fit national settlement, then national settlement must be adjusted to fit within national frontiers. A precedent lies with the forcible expulsion of most Germans resident in East European enclaves to the geopolitically redefined Germany during the late 1940s. However, the physical displacement of outposted minorities from their historic settlements to the national heartland in order to effect a demographically tidy nation-state has always proved intolerable to national pride as well as to self-interest. Moreover, the numbers involved both in the more traditional instances of the Hungarians and Turks, and in the more recent cases of the Serbs and Russians, are logistically intimidating. To offer the most daunting example, 25 million Russians reside outside the Russian republic. The transfer, whether voluntary or compulsory, of so many minority expatriates to a Russia grotesquely incapable of accommodating and absorbing such a massive influx would be prohibitive on political, financial and social grounds. 

The ostensibly easier, but more destabilizing, alternative is to expand the national heartland until the new frontiers of the nation-state include all expatriate settlements, however widely dispersed. The post-Yugoslav Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic appears to have committed itself to this option, pushing for a Greater Serbia incorporating all outposted Serbian enclaves, necessarily at the expense of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The post-Soviet Russia of Boris Yeltsin is already showing disconcerting signs of demanding a Greater Russia at the expense of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The implication of this nationally legitimized Lebensraum is that the territorial inclusion of a nation's own conational minorities cannot avoid the inclusion of national minorities of other states, thereby creating a multinational mini-empire, which breaches the hallowed principle of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state. Finding themselves at the cutting edge of interethnic conflict, formerly imperial minorities naturally have the most to lose from the relocation option and the most to gain from the expansion option. Formerly dominant minorities may well become the most conspicuous casualties of chronic nationalist competition for territory throughout greater Eastern Europe, leading some Western commentators to warn grimly of a "score of Ulsters."

Prospects for Internationalization

During the two years since the transformation of traditional Eastern Europe in 1989, the potential, and recently the actual, war zone between competing nationalisms has penetrated eastward to encompass the entire area of the former Soviet bloc. With the evaporation of supranational jurisdictions and allegiances, the nationalist tide of competing sovereignties has gathered a momentum unprecedented in European experience. As the predicament of former Yugoslavia has already proved, and that of the former Soviet Union will soon demonstrate, the most overt manifestation of the impassioned pursuit of nation-statehood free-for-all land grab, which ignores existing frontiers – raising the specter of a cataclysmic geopolitical destabilization of greater Eastern Europe. 

As the line between peace and war in the nationalist competition for territory becomes increasingly blurred, the need for a new geopolitical settlement for the 1990s becomes more pressing. Western attitudes have been revolutionized by developments in the East: Whatever their individual reservations, all Western powers and agencies are being drawn inexorably into interventionism by the "intermestic" nature of the crises. Prior to the watershed of 1989, the West observed a laissez faire policy, complacently supporting the ostensibly immovable Soviet status quo while sanctimoniously withholding its ideological seal of approval. The unforeseen downfall of communist East Central Europe in late 1989 was hailed, almost guiltily, as the triumph of the West (even as the "end of history" by a euphoric Francis Fukuyama). Suddenly appreciating that communist authority had performed the role not only of "jailor of nations" but also of "policeman of society," the alarmed Western powers abruptly changed their tune in 1990, anticipating "apocalypse soon" as the magnitude of East European problems was revealed. Over the course of 1991, a less fatalistic "doomsday deferred" attitude has come to predominate, articulating a dutiful determination to tackle the crisis to the East without necessarily entertaining sanguine expectations for its permanent resolution.

The prospects for the internationalization of East European nationalist conflict through outside intervention are, to say the least, problematic. It would, of course, be premature to judge the ongoing intervention of the West as it adds political, financial and possibly military dimensions to its original humanitarian concern; but however well-intentioned that external intervention, its undistinguished historical record in East Central Europe (not to mention elsewhere) does not inspire confidence. It may well be that the only effective internationalization of the national conflict in East Central Europe must come organically from within rather than being artificially imposed by Western outsiders. Ultimately, East Central Europe must put its own house in order, the first step of which must be candid acknowledgement of the limitations of the nation-state. 

If renationalization has been overwhelmingly politics-driven, internationalization is likely to be predominantly economics driven. East Central Europe will continue to experience massive problems switching from long-entrenched command economies to Western-style market economies, an ordeal that can only be exacerbated by autarky-seeking nation-states. Economic decolonization of an empire has always proved more elusive than political decolonization, frequently resulting in a morale-deflating collapse of prosperity in the initial phase of independence. The former components of an empire invariably encounter major problems of adjustment engendered by the fragmentation of the previously integrated economic entity: The successors of Austria Hungary discovered in the 1920s what the heirs of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are starting to appreciate in the 1990s. Populist politicians may urge East Central Europe ever onward in the headlong pursuit of the unattainable nation-state. Economists, however, deplore the fissiparous balkanization of Eastern Europe into inviable mini-states, advocating instead self-interested commitment (involving voluntary subordination) to larger scale, multistate geopolitical federations or confederations. 

While economic and international factors are certain to become increasingly powerful in the medium-to-long term, political and renationalist factors are likely to dominate the short-to-medium term. It would be unreasonable, as well as unrealistic, to expect the West to produce an early internationalist solution to the ongoing East European crisis; only East Central Europe itself can hope even to contain the renationalist spate, in what will be a protracted and painful process of political self-education. In the meantime, the refurbished dynamism of what has been euphemistically rechristened "applied patriotism" must run its full course. Nationalism has traditionally appealed beyond the parameters of conventional rationality, demonstrating all too often that "when the banners are unfurl'd, all reason is in the trumpet." Having acquired brighter banners and louder trumpets than ever before, East European nationalism is set to divert the eyes and assault the ears of the wider world throughout the last decade of the twentieth century.